89: Business Casual

"Nobody really cared about [Buzz]," says Amor. "For some reason it's considered an un-sexy thing to be doing." Un-sexy perhaps, but profitable. In spite of negative, almost ireful reviews ("Buzz? Snore."), Buzz! had a strong retail showing upon release, and literally cleaned up over the 2005 holiday season.
"[Buzz! was] Sony's biggest-selling title of 2005 ... and way up there in 2006," Amor says. "[We] sold over 4 million units of the Buzz! franchise ... in its first 15 months. So by any measure it's a successful title."
Russ Pitts looks at what kinds of games are favored by "the other 90%."

Business Casual

David Amor:
These are games your girlfriend buys.

Nonsense! Mr Amor is making it up as he goes along!

Insofar as female gamers have different gaming habits at all (which is far from universal) they play Final Fantasy, Puzzle Pirates and Sims.

Arkadium's Jeremy Mayes is closer to the right idea in thinking of his mum. Casual games are unique in being played by "non-gamers". They may be 70% female, but the corresponding male demographic is watching football on the TV or playing golf, not playing Gears of War online.

Eventually publishers will catch on that most people want games like Popcap makes. I like Popcap well enough, but what happens when the whole industry jumps on that bandwagon? We all know that the industry is imitative. Is that the future of games? Popcap, with graphics and stories?

I love complex games. You know, the kind where it's not violence or sex or inanity that scares off your mother, but the sheer amount of everything going on. I like games so much is because of games like this, which let you take a small, complete world with its big own set of rules, and master those rules.

That kind of game is a niche product even within the 10%. What happens when they start going after the 90%? Will they just stop making them? I don't imagine that you'll run out of people who want to develop them (hell, the Roguelike scene isn't shrinking, bless their souls), but what about people willing to fund them? Where do the Nethack players go when games are for Everybody?

Games were being made to feed this "niche" before the game industry was even an industry. I understand the feeling of isolation and displacement that comes with the realization that games have become something other than what they started out as, but the idea that the niche will not continue to be fed is ... absurd, to say the least. At the very least, we will always have Nethack.

I'm not suggesting that people won't eventually come back to it. I'm just saying: all games made today follow a basic formula, tuned to various levels of complexity, violence, and the little things we call genres. There's a niche that's fed by the most complex expression of that formula. What people are noticing now is that the formula is limiting them - or that, among the games produced by the formula, the only ones that break out of the niche are the ones that are about as simple as it gets.

What I'm suggesting is that every publisher, smelling where the money's at, will swing either to the simple side of the 10%, or throw their whole weight behind the 90%. When it takes ten, twenty, fifty million dollars to make a big game (and a complex game is a big one), why would a publisher even bother making one if they don't have ten million people ready to buy it? It's possible for a complex game to make its money back in its little niche, but why try it when there are bigger fish to fry out in the mainstream?

The thing you're getting at is that eventually, they'll run out of bigger fish, right? I completely agree. But 90% of the population is a lot of people. How long will it take for the game industry to diversify enough to the point that these 90% start to recognize which if the Popcap-style fare is worth their dollar, and become discriminating consumers? From the moment the market opens up until they spend about as much time picking their games as they do, for example, their television, then they'll be a market who'll buy just about anything if it's casual. In this environment, game companies will have very few reasons to make the same-old same-old, and they wouldn't make one that very deliberately does not appeal to anyone but fans of the same-old same-old. The effects will be exaggerated because publishers imitate and they have to predict things years in advance.

My concern is that it will take so long for a nuanced market to spring up that publishers will, during that time, adopt an entirely new formula, that doesn't account for the production of big complex games. A game like that can only be made reliably in two circumstances: a market that is fundamentally limited to that niche, and a market that is very nearly as diverse and democratic as books or music. There's a long way between those two states.

Things like this have happened to other media and even entirely different kinds of product. When was the last time you saw, for example, a feature-length satirical comedy in the vein of Duck Soup? How often do musicals get put on the big screen? How about a TV show that couldn't be pigeonholed into "sitcom," "drama," "documentary," or "reality?" An unapologetic, serious, pulp comic without superheroes in it? A car that isn't shaped like every other car, either in the interior or the exterior? You get a few novelties here and there - but it is possible for the little niches of consumer goods to be forgotten when the product as a whole goes mainstream.

The Internet is mitigating all of this to varying degrees, usually inversely proportional to the budget required. I'm hoping that's enough to keep it from happening to games, but I'm not convinced it will be.

Sorry man. I'm an economic realist. You won't gain any traction on my turf with that kind of crazy talk. But I do believe that if there is a market for a thing, however small, a product or service will rise to fill it. I'd say to you: if you don't like the direction the industry is headed, go out and make your own games. We've certainly provided more than enough material in the pages of this very magazine to enable one to at least try.

Oh, I certainly plan on it. I've been on that path for a few years now, moving forward. Just a little bit longer, and I'll have everything I need to show it off.

Maybe I should clarify further. I've been spoiled by the relative commonality of complex games, and the luxury of being able to play such a game without having been present for its development. You remember what happened to wargamers? I see the exact same thing happening electronically, and it doesn't tickle me.

I'm going to go call my psychic to sort all this out. But, until we have a definite answer about what is to come....

Fletcher, I think your belief in a fee-market economy is too idyllic. It is entirely possible for a niche to become small enough that it no longer gets filled on a level that satisfies the consumer. Complex games will be available, sure, but that doesn't mean they will be widespread enough to force a higher level of quality.

Bill, I think you're traveling a slippery slope of logic. Sure, these things might happen, but that doesn't mean they will. I'm not really convinced that "casual games" and "complex games" even belong in the same discussion. They are two entirely different worlds.

I feel that a lot of casual gamers are a "come and go" type audience. Sure, people download games to their cell phones, but I don't know anyone that actually plays any of those games. Cell phone games are often a bad decision.

Also, I have seen many friends go from "snood" addicts back to non-gamers in a matter of weeks. They prioritize differently; if something comes to their attention they will check it out, but they won't seek out games to play. If they do play a game it is often one they didn't buy. Something preloaded on a new PC, or even a free demo to play over and over is often sufficient. Stick online ads into these games and I think you have a winner. Low prices also. I don't see "casual games" taking over the "complex game" universe.

Though I'm not going to suggest that the situation is the same. And, I'm not attempting to prove my point, but rather illustrate my feeling on the subject. I see the relationship to be somewhat like "casual games : hardcore games :: TV : Movies". Again, I'm simply comparing them to suggest there is a different experience in each, not to suggest that the analogy is exact.

On a side note: George Lucas revealed, not long ago, that he would be getting out of filmmaking in favor of TV which is cheaper to produce for with lower risk. Actually, you should probably ignore that last bit so that the issue doesn't get even murkier.

George Lucas revealed, not long ago, that he would be getting out of filmmaking

Thank GOD! :rimshot:

Yeah, we can all look forward to a sub par Star Wars show coming out next year... yay?

Dear Editor,

I'd like to verify the sales figures that you list in your article about the Buzz! games. You mention in your article that 4 million units have been sold. I'd love to know the breakdown of that number in terms of US sales vs. Europe in 2005 and 2006.

I've done quite a bit of research to try to get these figures but to no avail. Perhaps you can help?

Many thanks, Laurie


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